April 27, 2011

CERN Says God Particle Claims Are Premature

Scientists at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) played down claims of a significant discovery, after a leaked memo hinted that the elusive "God particle" may have been found.

Experts say speculation of the dramatic finding for the Higgs boson particle is premature. The leak surfaced online and then was spread rapidly among the scientific community.

A spokesman for CERN -- the European Organization for Nuclear Research -- confirmed that the note was authentic. But he told BBC News that the finding was a false alarm, and that the note was written by a small group of people working with scientists at the LHC.

"There will be working groups for individual physics topics... within those working groups small teams of people will write notes for scrutiny by their colleagues," Dr James Gillies, director of communications at CERN, told BBC News. "If those notes survive scrutiny, which is often not the case... then the next stage in the peer review process is for them to go out to the collaboration as a whole. If they survive that, then the collaboration will say: 'we've got something to go out to external peer review'."

"What was leaked was the first stage in that process... at this stage we can't take it seriously and these things do come and go quite often," Gillies added.

The Higgs boson particle is of significant importance to the theory of physics known as the Standard Model. The Higgs boson is a sub-atomic particle that explains why all other particles have mass. However, the particle has never been detected, despite decades of searching.

"I think the excitement is due mainly to the incredible sense of anticipation there is in particle physics at the moment," Gillies told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Thousands of researchers are sifting through data generated by the LHC near Geneva, and many expect it to produce major discoveries about the makeup of matter and other mysteries of the universe in the years to come.

"The Higgs really is the Holy Grail of particle physics and that's why this is so important," Phillip F. Schewe, a spokesman for the American Institute of Physics, told AP.

Previously, much of the initial debate would have taken place behind closed doors. But the increasing publicity revolving the LHC and the development of social media networks means even early-stage science is getting out and quickly spreading via the Internet.

"It's unusual for this sort of specific, detailed material to be made public," said Peter Woit, a physicist at Columbia University on whose blog the memo first appeared last week, submitted by an anonymous user.

Woit said he chose not to remove the posting, as it had already generated dozens of comments by the time he saw it -- many of them skeptical. "This was accurate information of interest to my blog readers," he said.

"Anything, especially garbage, can be published as a 'com' note. It's internal to the Atlas collaboration, not reviewed by anyone, not approved," another anonymous user on the blog commented.

Although anonymous, the posting carried the names of four researchers working at CERN's Atlas experiment. Atlas is one of four giant detectors built to record high-energy proton collisions inside the collider's 17-mile tunnel beneath the Swiss-French border.

The memo claims that abnormal measurements seen at a particular energy level are "the first definitive observation of physics beyond the standard model."

Jon Butterworth, a physicist at University College London who works with Atlas, said it was unfortunate the memo had been published.

"It's quite an overstated communication," he told AP. He said some 30 notes not unlike this one are circulated among Atlas scientists each week. Very few ever get leaked.

Schewe compared the leaking of the memo to WikiLeaks' publication of U.S. foreign policy documents. "It's embarrassing, but probably in the long run not so bad," he said.


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